Charles Spurgeon once wrote that prayer “pulls the rope down below and the great bell rings above in the ears of God. Some scarcely stir the bell, for they pray so languidly; others give only an occasional jerk at the rope. But he who communicates with heaven is the man who grasps the rope boldly and pulls continuously with all his might.” It’s a beautiful sentiment. But, if that’s true, why does it seem that God doesn’t hear “the great bells” that you are ringing in personal prayer? Why do your prayers go seemingly unanswered while the requests of others simply fall in their lap? In other words, why doesn’t God answer all your prayers?
This troubles many Christians. We read passages like “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14) and “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7) and wonder what we are doing wrong. Many in the past have said, “God answers every prayer—just not always in the way we like.” This is true. Maybe the real question then is “Why does God sometimes say no?”
It would be the height of arrogance for us to assume that we absolutely know the mind of God. While we are given God’s redemptive truth, embodied within His Son and written in scripture, this doesn’t mean that we can absolutely determine every purpose of God’s sovereign will. God reminds us that:
“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”
God reigns in sovereign majesty— this is His right as the creator and sustainer of the universe; for, ““For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:34).
But, while we may not comprehend the depth of God’s wisdom in His sovereign decisions, that doesn’t mean that we can’t know why God doesn’t answer certain prayers. Here are five reasons God won’t answer every prayer.
It’s not according to His ultimate purpose
Many often ask “What does God want from me?” They constantly search for a sign, for some still small voice, to put them in the right direction. Yet scripture tells us God’s ultimate purpose for our life:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
God’s ultimate purpose is the glorification of His Name (His glorious grace) through the adoption and sanctification of humanity. That is, God’s predestined purpose for His children is to make Himself look good through making them look godly. God’s name is most glorified when we are conformed more fully to the image of Jesus.
Because of this, God may say “no” to your prayer because it will harm your sanctification, which would ultimately diminish His glory. As our hunger for God grows, we recognize that it is the glory of God’s name which gives us ultimate purpose and joy, not passing comforts (however meaningful they may seem). One of the greatest examples of this is the Lord’s response to Paul’s request to be delivered from some physical malady in 2 Corinthians 12:9:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
This is a difficult truth for us to learn, but sometimes God’s glory works in the shadow of unanswered prayers. Inevitably our prayers are answered “according to his will” (James 4:15; 1 John 5:14).
It’s not for Your ultimate good
If you’re a parent, you realize the stress of going to the grocery store. No matter how often we discipline our children, they inevitably think that every trip means we are Christmas shopping. “Daddy can I have” is the soundtrack of my life. It may surprise some to hear that we very rarely buy our children toys/candy on the spot. We recognize that not every request should be fulfilled. In fact, there’s a word to describe a child who gets everything they want: spoiled. It isn’t in the ultimate good of our children to satisfy their every whim. To develop them into healthy, stable adults we must teach them the importance of wants, needs, and delayed gratification.
This perspective may help us in understanding God’s purpose through unanswered prayers: your request may not be for your ultimate good. God’s unconquerable purpose for His children is to give them unending, eternal goodness (Rom. 8:28). While some find this difficult to hear, scripture constantly affirms that God’s good purpose can still work (and fact seems to only work) through unmet expectations, difficulties, and hardship. As we wrestle in faith, and “labor in prayer” (Col. 4:12) we discover that God often develops our character by withholding a given request.
It’s not for the ultimate good of another
While our prayers often focus on our immediate needs, we sometimes forget that we are not the only one God is watching out for. There are times in our family when my daughter will request something of me, but I deny her that desire because it would hurt her brother in some way. This doesn’t mean that I love her brother more, but as the father I must take into account the total benefit/cost of answering their individual request.
Whether we recognize it or not, sometimes our request could hinder the working God is trying to accomplish in another and therefore He denies that plea. At other times we pray hurtful, harmful things (venting in frustration over our spouse, family, or coworker) which the Lord, in His wisdom, may recognize would have harmful effects on others if allowed (James 4:1-3).
It’s not asked in absolute faith
Prayer is often more difficult than we assume. As we previously mentioned, Paul wrote about Epaphras “laboring in prayer.” Sometimes this struggle comes from our lack of trust in God. The Spirit teaches in James 4:5-8:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
Prayer requires an absolute trust in the power, provision, and love of our Father. This doesn’t mean that we must go to God believing every request will be answered, but that we trust in His sovereign goodness and ability to accomplish what He ultimately wills in our life. While it isn’t popular to say, sometimes our prayers aren’t answered because we lack faith (for more thoughts on this see my previous article “Without a Doubt: Praying with Confidence”).
It’s not asked with righteous purpose
We often like to believe that we have the purest of intentions when praying, yet James tells us about a group of people who were requesting things from God without receiving due to unholy motives:
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.”
What are our motives in praying to God? Are we requesting out of selfishness or service? God ultimately knows the inner motives of our heart and may deny certain request because of our intentions. This requires meditation and reflection as we sanctify our request through the filter of God’s truth, aligning ourselves more fully to His purpose. For, our greatest desire is to pray as our Lord “Not my will, but yours be done.” My will is often tainted, stubborn, and selfish, but God’s will is holy, self-giving, faithful, and loving—and it is in that will we trust as we pray.
As we conclude, let me give this one caveat: I am not attempting to give the exact reason as to why God didn’t answer your specific prayer. I can’t judge your heart, your motives, or your faith—I certainly can’t judge God’s. I realize many requests are poured out to God in fervency at the bed of a loved one as they struggle with chronic pain or terminal illness only to have the silence of the walls answer back. I don’t pretend to know every instance or answer. But I do know that God loves you more deeply than anyone ever could. I know that God still answers prayers. I know that He is actively working to accomplish His will in us as we “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12-13).
And I also believe, as Garth Brooks once sang, that “Some of God’s greatest gifts, are unanswered prayers.” Amen.